You’ve heard the term, perhaps you’ve come to trust and allow it to perform for you at times.
But what is it?
I was taking a walk this morning and tossing a stone I found up and catching it. Pleasant little diversion as I enjoyed the early morning sunshine.
One particular throw went a little off course, and as I reached for it, I had to bend my arm in a funny position to catch it. As the stone came down and I stretched and bent for it, I recognized this twisted arm position, knowing I’ve “made that catch before”. And so I relaxed, trusted my muscle memory to carry this out and sure enough squeezed my hand around the stone and caught it.
Pretty cool. But I asked myself – what is muscle memory.
Well, apparently the brain organ that is most responsible for automatic and learned movements is the cerebellum. The little cauliflower looking thing in the back and bottom of the brain.. It is really an outgrowth of the brainstem – something that grew for a purpose, to handle the greater need for coordinating movements as movement itself became more complex.
So w hat happened when I caught the rock? My voluntary or on purpose and directed movement brought my arm and hand close to the stone, and then as I bent and twisted it, there was this feeling of familiarity – as if my arm knew how to do this, or recognized being in that position. At this point various messages are actually heading back to the brain from stretch and position receptors alerting it in a “recognize the feeling” sort of a way. There is a response to this – the cerebellum activates a response that heads to various parts of the brain, and when among other places it reaches the basal ganglia (an older part of the cortex), there is a feeling about a movement which is then relayed to the newer parts of the cortex. On to the motor part that we are used to using for “voluntary movement which has likely also received input from the cerebellum directly.
That basal ganglia activation is likely the source of the familiar feeling that we begin to trust as the voluntary movement area of the cortex kind of “signs off” on what the automatic parts of the brain are doing, possibly modifying it a little, and that rock never touches the ground. And so we have this old cerebellum that stores up for us the rudiments of movements we have made before, refining and making them available to us. When they are called upon, this part of the brain as well as numerous others come into play in a beautifully coordinated manner and voila, no re inventing the wheel – a nice refined movement with a feeling of familiarity arises, and we execute, thanks to a moment of trust and millions of years of evolution.
One hand washes the other.